Protolabs’ Chief Accelerated Transition To Digital Manufacturing

Holt oversaw robust growth, proof of business model amid Covid, and beginning of supply-chain shift.

Vicki Holt has led her company over a Covid speed bump to accelerate out of the pandemic, has enacted the rollout of crucial new software, has overseen the engineering of a major new acquisition and has begun capitalizing on American manufacturers’ rationalization of their supply chains away from dependence on Chinese sources. Now the CEO of Protolabs is readying to activate one of her last major duties as she prepares to retire from the Maple Plain, Minneapolis-based digital-manufacturing leader: handing off the helm to a worthy successor.

“CEOs have chapters, and it’s important for them to think about their legacy and what is the next chapter and when someone else needs to lead it,” said the 63-year-old Holt, who plans to step down as Protolabs’ president and chief executive officer on March 1, stay on the board until May, and then pursue “portfolio jobs” such as board seats in addition to her position as a director of Waste Management.

“We built the [Protolabs] organization and our capabilities to be able to scale and positioned Protolabs as the leader in e-commerce digital manufacturing,” Holt told Chief Executive. “So it’s time for the next chapter, and Protolabs is set up for some long-term growth.”

Robert Bodor, Protolabs’ vice president and general manager of the Americas for the last six years, will succeed Holt. He joined Protolabs a year before Holt’s arrival in 2014 at the company that is a huge source for digital-manufacturing services, including one-day production of custom components with automated 3D printing, CNC machining, sheet-metal fabrication and injection molding.

Among steps Holt oversaw to set up Bodor for success was Protolabs’ just-announced acquisition of 3D Hubs, an e-commerce software company based in Amsterdam, for $280 million. That followed Protolabs’ rollout in November of a new digital quoting platform in Europe, with U.S. launch set for early this year.

Protolabs had just gone public when Holt took command, and she led the company to $459 million in revenues in 2019, representing a 17-percent compounded annual growth rate over her tenure. Holt said that revenues took a hit of 5 to 7 percent in 2020 because of Covid-related disruptions but that “over the long term, changes from the pandemic will be an accelerator for Protolabs.”

“We didn’t like it, but the company did an awesome job managing through” the pandemic, she said. About one-quarter of Protolabs’ revenues are medical products. “Our business model was made to help companies get products to market quickly,” she said, and Protolabs notched more than $16 million in revenues last year directly related to Covid mitigation, from production of respirators, face shields and other devices.

“Some companies were brand new – entrepreneurs or doctors who saw the need or had an idea and picked up the phone and called us, and we helped them to get to market,” Holt said. “Other customers were big companies, such as Medtronic; we helped them manufacture a part for ventilators. We were in great position to get these products to market.”

Beyond Covid, Holt said, Protolabs’ response was yet another proof of the effectiveness of digital manufacturing. “We think we’ll come out of the pandemic with pent-up demand for innovation and new products, and we have a very responsive supply chain,” she said. “As companies look to put resilience in their supply chain and find alternatives for changes in demand, we’re a good solution to that problem.”

American manufacturers also are in the “very early innings” of responding to an over-dependence on Chinese sources of manufacture, and Protolabs is helping them create resiliency solutions. For instance, Holt said, a “large manufacturer of systems for buildings” recently worked with Protolabs to develop a multi-cavity mold injection tool that typically the customer would have moved to a single-source operation in China. But the customer – which Holt declined to identify – this time instead retained Protolabs as a backup source.

“We’re approved as a production supplier” for that tool, she said. “Those are the kinds of things that customers now are putting in place to give them resiliency.” Supply chains “are huge investments in capital and equipment and processes and people,” she noted. “It takes time to shift those; it’s not happening overnight. But for supply chains, the risks are political, time, transportation costs and environmental impacts. They create inability to respond to changes in demand, so companies are going to begin to put some changes in place.”

Holt said that manufacturers’ moves to increase supply-chain resilience stemmed not just from the onset of Covid – with its shutdown of Chinese manufacturing, and increased political hostility to China in the United states – but also from “the tariffs and what’s happened with protectionism, and the volatility of the world.” There’s even a climate-change component because longer supply chains almost buy definition are less “sustainable” than shorter ones.

“All of that will cause more companies to say they have to look at the supply chain differently than they did in the 1980s and 1990s,” Holt concluded.